Lost, Found: That Sinking Feeling

Yes, I haven’t written about Lost for ages. Yes, I’ve procrastinated across the better part of the entire series in what was intended to be episode by episode commentary. Yes, this isn’t an episode-specific commentary. Yes, I realize nobody probably even reads this or cares much about my take on the show. But here are a few words, summing up why I thought I might have had an original take, why it may have been genuinely important if I was right, how the way things are heading toward an end may seem to go against the perspective I’d had in mind, how the show can’t really be ultimately satisfying except as pure entertainment if I’m wrong — and how it still may be possible that my take my be correct.

At the end of last night’s episode, The Candidate, in the preview for next week’s episode, we saw clips from earlier in the series. Locke explaining backgammon as a battle between black and white. Jacob (in white) and the Man in Black on the beach, the latter declaring how badly he wanted to see the former dead. And if that weren’t enough, there was even a title card in the preview, declaring a battle between Good and Evil in white letters on a black background. And today, The Candidate was described by Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff “Doc” Jensen as providing definitive clarity about a key issue. He says there “can no longer be any doubt about this: The Locke-ness Monster is pure evil.” It certainly seems that way, but in this show, things are often not what they seem. And here’s why I think the same may be true here.

Throughout its run, Lost has transcended the simplicity of black/white, of good/evil. The entire history of the show is filled with nuance, confusion, choices. Even though some characters may seem to be more at the extremes, more obviously “good” or “bad,” it’s hard to say of practically any character that they have been all good or all evil. If the show has seemed to be about anything, it’s the quest for redemption, with practically every character living in the gray areas, having their own past demons, their own transgressions, their own mistakes. All seek to somehow find a way to be free of those things and move into a new phase of life. And yet many of those past “evils” were wrapped up with “good” — Jack’s compulsion to fix and heal, Kate’s wanting to protect her mother, the list goes on and on. We simply cannot say that the characters’ redemption is about leaving evil behind to find good. The matter is always far more complex and real than that.

And so we’re supposed to believe that the Man in Black is just plain evil, and he will unleash terror on the world, and Jacob is just plain good, and he and his successor must somehow manage to keep evil all bottled up on the island, away from the world? When the world is already as filled with illness and damage as it is — evident in the very backstories of each of the characters, above and beyond our own everyday knowledge of the world — how can we possibly buy such a simplistic scenario?

Even if the Man in Black is a psychopath/sociopath, symbolically in the story, that’s just an extreme of immature selfishness. Yet there is in some sense just about as much immaturity in believing that the only thing to do in response to selfishness is to keep it bottled up. Children are naturally narcissistic, and they can grow up to become otherwise. Not when parents let kids run wild, nor when parents squash their impulses — those approaches just ensure that they “grow up” to stay as childish and selfish as they ever were, in one way or other, with demons they’ll have to wrestle with from that point forward, seeking redemption even if they don’t realize it, and yet not knowing how to find it. Kids become otherwise, they actually become mature, when parents help give those kids what they need so that they can get through the naturally more selfish early years and learn to become whole people who know how to balance their own needs with those of others. Selfishness indulged, properly and at the right time, allows a transcendence of selfishness. Nothing else can — especially not forcing selflessness and “maturity” upon someone not ready for those things.

The ambiguity of good/bad, indeed, has been one of the key themes of the show all along. It is there in the ways we’ve learned about each character. In the ways each character has interacted with those around them. In the ways those characters have seen how their choices didn’t always turn out to be wise. In the ways those characters have learned and changed. In the different and changing feelings characters had about being on — or off — the island. And, crucially, in the different feelings and life experiences the characters have in Sideways world as compared to the original timeline.

Significantly, it is also there in the nature of, and relationships different characters have with, “The Others.” The Others claim to be with Jacob, and so are opposed to the Man in Black. Yet Widmore seems opposed to both. Even without figuring in the lostaways, there is clearly a triangle here — and therefore a refutation of the simplistic division of good vs. evil. The lostaways find themselves at odds with all parts of this triangle at various times, though the only part of it they seriously entertain destroying is the weakest. Not the supernaturally powerful Man in Black, nor the financially powerful corporate titan Widmore, but the people who run about the island in rags and barefeet. And those very “others” are the ones willing to share the island, while almost everyone else at one point or other — not only Widmore and the Man in Black, but the Dharma Initiative and even the lostaways themselves — wished the others gone, banished, exterminated.

Who is the better or worse here, the good and the bad? Wouldn’t those who want to pursue harmony and co-existence deserve to be called good in comparison to those who would rather have the island world to themselves? Isn’t this the very difference just mentioned, between kids who grow up self-absorbed as opposed to those who truly grow up and know how to seek balance and harmony? Indeed, more than once we hear some “other” who seems suspect declare, “We’re the good guys.” Who are we to believe?

The inclination to extermination is just the extreme of selfishness, the inevitable conclusion of selfishness. And it is itself entangled with the very reasons certain groups define themselves in contrast to “others.” Defining people as “others” (as the lostaways do), as “hostiles” (as the Dharma Initiative do), as enemy, is a sign of dichotomous thinking. Self vs. other, us vs. them. “We” are always fully human, while “they” are always less so. We are subject, they are object, and they deserve less than us, perhaps even death. It doesn’t matter if they die, they aren’t us, they aren’t people, we owe them nothing. Perhaps we even feel they need to die, or at least to have less, in order for us to be who we are. It is, in terms of game theory, competitive, win-lose thinking — for us to win, they must lose, and vice versa. Again, narcissism is normal in early stages of human development, and even for mature people, this kind of thinking can have its place. But as a general approach to living in the world, it is wanting — evident from the strife we see on all levels through our own world, obsessed as it is with this kind of thinking.

From the start, though, the series has posed that only those who live together will not die alone. It has posed the opposite of dichotomous thinking. It has posed the cooperative, the win-win. This is the maturity toward which all the characters struggle. Some resist it consciously, others seek it actively, but seldom is anyone successful at reaching it or staying with it. Without this thinking, everyone resorts to seeing themselves as good and the other bad. Only with this thinking, only with an attempt to find harmony, can good and bad be transcended, and can we embrace the fact that things aren’t as black and white as we might have thought. This is the redemption the characters seek.

And yet there’s UnLocke, apparently having hatched a plan to have the lostaways collectively off themselves so he can leave the island — not with them as he claimed, not giving them their heart’s desire as he promised, but obviously with some other outcome. The destruction of the world, as Jacob and Richard suggest? Not clear. But what is clear is that he was lying to them about his plan to get off the island and has certainly proved to be something other than the beneficent entity he tried to make them believe he was.

Is the show becoming simplistic all of a sudden, and have I been wrong all along? This has happened to me before, thinking a piece of entertainment might be capable of showing the way toward a real understanding of harmony, beyond the pat contrivances of good and evil. But they somehow seem to betray themselves. Star Wars. Titanic. The Candidate, with the obvious heartbreak of the death of the Kwons and the back-from-the-dark-side Sayid, and the revelation of the nefarious plan of UnLocke, all presented through the sunken submarine, has given me a bit of that sinking feeling again.

However, I still believe there is much evidence on “my” side, and so I continue to hold out hope that something better, something more interesting, is in store for the series’ final hours. Crucially, we haven’t yet been given any idea what the show, the characters, actually mean by the terms “good” and “evil.” From the simplistic us vs. them frame, from a standpoint of win-lose, good and evil become immature and completely relativistic labels, where what’s good for us is evil for them, and vice versa. But growing up our notions and seeing our way to win-win, we don’t have to discard these opposites entirely. We can come to think of them in new way.

On one level, what’s “evil” is dualistic, oppositional thinking itself, and what’s “good” is holistic thinking, thinking that acknowledges the variety of our experience and attempts as much as possible to accommodate as many as possible, thinking that even allows for competitive, win-lose thinking when it’s warranted. From this standpoint, white and black stand together on the evil side, with a rainbow opposing them.

On another level, good and evil can simply be the pleasant and unpleasant things that happen to us, the desired and the undesired, the ups and the down, in which case it’s important to embrace them all as normal aspects of life. It is trying to only have the good in this sense, failing to embrace the bad, that often leads to there being more bad and less good. On the other hand, accepting them both for the opportunities they provide is precisely what allows us to create a bit more good all the time. Here, in some sense, white and black and all else stand together, worthy of embrace, with nothing left as truly evil — the only real evil is denying part of our experience, trying to separate one or more colors from the rest.

Both of these perspectives stand in contrast to a totalitarian view of good and bad as enemies which must duke it out until only one color, white or black, can triumph. And so it may turn out that the Man in Black is evil after all, as Doc Jensen suggests, but that may turn out to mean something different from what anyone expects.

This is where I believed the show was pointing. It seemed a sophisticated deconstruction of our typical notions of good and evil, and it therefore seemed to be heading to a surprising ending, one that might even be jarring or disturbing for those who may themselves be too wrapped up in dichotomous thinking. Such a conclusion could only lead the nuances from earlier in the series toward an unexpected, far-from-trite resolution. And that resolution would have the potential to have a positive impact on the many who watch the show. It would have the potential to actually transform.

It’s not over ’til it’s over. It’s still possible that the show could hand us this very kind of conclusion, a mature and transformative one. Even still, it seems somewhat likely to me. After all, with the story plotted out so far ahead of time and kept such a secret, with so much mystery and subtlety along the way, and with the show’s creators sticking to their guns to end the show both when and how they wanted, completely according to their terms, and repeatedly stating that they have no idea just how satisfied audiences will be, does it seem possible or reasonable that the grand finale could involve a cliche like white beats black? Given the amount of evil clearly already in the world even with the Man in Black already bottled up on the island, how could keeping him there be a satisfying triumph of good over evil?

If a simplistic ending is what ends up happening, though, then Lost will find a spot on the crowded list of entertainments that I’ve enjoyed and will always hold a fondness for but which nevertheless disappointed in the end because they failed to achieve the greater promise I saw in them. If that happens, then I suppose I’ll be pretty glad I didn’t bother spending all that time writing an episode by episode commentary after all. We shall see.

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